U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Mauritius
|Publisher||United States Department of State|
|Publication Date||25 February 2000|
|Cite as||United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Mauritius , 25 February 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa738.html [accessed 5 August 2015]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
The Republic of Mauritius, a parliamentary democracy since 1968, is governed by a prime minister, a council of ministers, and a national assembly. The President, who is nominated by the Prime Minister and confirmed by the National Assembly, serves as Head of State, with largely ceremonial powers. Fair and orderly national and local elections, supervised by an independent commission, take place at regular intervals. There are numerous political parties, and partisan politics are open and robust. The judiciary is independent.
A paramilitary Special Mobile Force under civilian control is responsible for internal security. This force, commanded by the Commissioner of Police, is backed by a general duty police force. Both forces are largely apolitical, but were criticized for being inadequately trained to prevent and control rioting that broke out nationwide in February. While human rights violations are infrequent, members of the security forces committed some serious abuses.
The economy is based on labor-intensive, export-oriented manufacturing (mainly textiles), as well as sugar and tourism. The standard of living is high, with a per capita gross domestic product of approximately $3,300 (82,500 rupees) per year. The Government is diversifying the economy by promoting investment in new sectors such as information technology and financial services.
The Government generally respects the human rights of its citizens, but problem areas remain. Police shot and killed three protesters during riots in February, and judicial inquiries were ongoing in at least eight cases of deaths in police custody. There continued to be occasional reports that police abused suspects and detainees, and delayed their access to defense counsel. Although the law to establish a national human rights commission to investigate complaints against the police, including allegations of police brutality, went into effect in February, the commission was not established by year's end. In some cases, police restricted freedom of assembly. Violence and discrimination against women and abuse of children continued to be problems. Interethnic tensions led to violence on at least two occasions. Child labor remains a problem. The Government continued to prepare a curriculum for human rights education for introduction in the schools; however, it did not meet the original goal of introducing such a curriculum in the primary grades during the year. There were reports that women and children were trafficked to the country.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
A judicial inquiry is ongoing into the February death in police custody of a popular Creole singer, Kaya. Kaya's death sparked 3 days of rioting in February during which police shot and killed three protesters, one police officer died of cardiac arrest, and shops, homes, and churches were burned and looted, resulting in an estimated $50 million (1,250 million rupees) in damages. A second inquiry is investigating the death of another Creole musician, who was shot and killed by police during the February riots.
On March 23, the Prime Minister responded to a parliamentary question and stated that eight detainees had been found dead in police cells between January 1, 1998 and February 28, 1999. The deaths were under investigation at year's end. Three persons died in prison in August and November (see Section 1.c.).
Little progress was made in resolving the cases of two persons who died in police custody, one in 1996 and one in 1994. In 1994 three police officers were charged with manslaughter but found not guilty. An April 1998 preliminary inquiry into the 1996 case did not result in any charges being filed against police officers. Human rights lawyers asserted that the police were attempting to conceal the facts surrounding the deaths and were not conducting thorough, unbiased investigations.
On May 23, seven persons died in a fire at a Chinese social club in Port Louis set by predominantly Muslim demonstrators who were protesting the result of a soccer game (see Section 5).
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture and inhuman punishment, and authorities generally respected it; however, there continued to be complaints of abuses by the police. The most common form of alleged police abuse is the use of force to coerce a suspect to sign a confession. Police on occasion used force and tear gas to disperse protesters, resulting in a few injuries (see Section 2.b.). A judicial inquiry is ongoing into the circumstances behind the death in police custody of the popular singer Kaya (see Section 1.a.).
In response to the eight reported deaths in police custody between January 1, 1998, and February 28, 1999 (see Section 1.a.), the Commissioner of Police announced plans to establish a central investigation bureau under the supervision of the national human rights commission, to investigate complaints against police.
While the law to establish the national human rights commission went into effect on February 23, the commission had not been established by year's end. The Attorney General and the Minister of Human Rights announced that they still were searching for the appropriate former Supreme Court judge to chair the commission, a condition stipulated by the law. The commission is to have three other members, of whom one must be a lawyer or a judge with 10 years of experience and the other two must have experience in the human rights field. The commission is to investigate abuses by any public servants, but cannot investigate complaints that are already the subject of an inquiry by the Ombudsman, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Public Service Commission, or the Disciplined Forces Service Commission. The commission is to have the authority to visit centers of detention or prisons to assess living conditions and make recommendations on conditions. The commission first is to try to resolve complaints through conciliation. If not successful, the commission can forward cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions (if criminal in nature), to the service commissions for disciplinary measures, or to the responsible authority in question.
Prison conditions generally meet minimum international standards.
In August a recently sentenced prisoner hung himself in the infirmary of the central prison. In November another prisoner in the central prison hung himself. Also in November, a recently arrested prisoner was found dead in his cell in a prison just outside of Port Louis, reportedly due to respiratory problems. Police investigated the deaths and there were no reports of abuse or neglect.
The Government has permitted prison visits by foreign diplomats, the national Ombudsman, a team from the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, and the press. The Government stated that it would investigate conditions and treatment in police holding cells; however, it did not begin an investigation by year's end.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observes these prohibitions. In most cases, suspects are provided prompt access to family and defense counsel; however, police at times delayed suspects' access to defense counsel. Minors and those who did not know their rights were more likely not to be provided prompt access.
The Constitution prohibits exile, and the Government does not use it.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respects this provision in practice.
The judicial system consists of the Supreme Court, which has appellate powers, and a series of lower courts. Final appeal may be made to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. There are no political or military courts.
The Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary vigorously enforces this right. Defendants have the right to private or court-appointed counsel. The 1995 Dangerous Drugs Act, which would permit law enforcement authorities to hold suspected drug traffickers for up to 36 hours without access to bail or legal counsel, is undergoing judicial review and has not been implemented. Attempts to introduce new legislation to permit authorities to withhold access to bail or counsel from suspected drug traffickers for 36 hours failed because of public opposition.
There are no political prisoners.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The Constitution prohibits such practices, government authorities generally respect these provisions, and violations are subject to legal sanction. Both human rights lawyers and police authorities stated that illegal entry by the intelligence apparatus had ceased. The acting Commissioner of Police stated that police do not use illegal wiretaps on telephones.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respects these rights in practice. Debate in the National Assembly is lively and open. On April 26, a Supreme Court judge issued an interlocutory order requiring Parliament to readmit the leader of the opposition, who had been expelled for alleged unruly behavior during the April 6 parliamentary session. In his decision, the judge criticized the Speaker of Parliament for publishing officially a false account of the parliamentary proceedings in question and for not following proper procedures in suspending the opposition leader. The judge also suggested that a government minister had perjured himself in an affidavit filed in support of the Speaker.
More than a dozen privately owned newspapers presented varying political viewpoints and expressed partisan views freely. The Government has the ability to counter press criticism by using strict libel laws; however, the Government has not invoked these measures to inhibit the press. Libel suits between private parties are common.
The government monopoly in broadcasting local news and programming continued, but it was undermined by a Supreme Court decision in 1997. This decision resulted in the opening of broadcasting to private parties with the exception of local news programming, which remained under government control pending passage of legislation for complete liberalization. One private news organization began local news broadcasts in July 1998 on the Internet, thereby circumventing the ban on private party television or radio local news broadcasts. Foreign international news services, such as the United Kingdom's Sky News, France's Canal Plus, and Cable Network News, are available to the public by subscription.
The state-owned Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) was criticized after the February riots for not adequately covering the disturbances, while the privately owned print media covered the events extensively. A communique released by the MBC in March stated that it would have been "out of the question" for MBC to cover the riots live, because of fears that such coverage would needlessly dramatize the events and lead viewers to believe that a "full civil insurrection" was taking place in the country. The opposition Mauritian Socialist Movement/Militant Mauritian Movement Federation, in a judicial challenge to the results of a September 19 by-election, formally accused the MBC of providing biased coverage favoring the Government's candidate during the by-election campaign; the MBC rejected this charge. The Supreme Court postponed a hearing on this matter, which was scheduled for November. The hearing was not rescheduled by year's end.
The Government respects academic freedom.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the Government generally respected this right in practice; however, police permission is required for demonstrations and mass meetings and such permission was refused in certain cases this year. While groups have the right to challenge denials, some of those who went ahead with demonstrations after a denial or never asked for police permission to gather at all were confronted with a heavy police response. After police refused to allow the Unemployed Workers' Movement and the Rodrigues Government Employees Association on the island of Rodrigues to hold a second demonstration in April, the group gathered anyway, and police used tear gas to disperse the protesters and arrested eight persons. In July leaders of the Federation of Civil Servants gathered outside Government House, which houses the National Assembly and ministerial offices, to deliver a letter to the Minister of the Public Sector. A team from the police's special Support Unit arrived and forcibly dispersed the protesters, slightly injuring three persons in the process.
The Constitution provides for freedom of association, and the Government respects this right in practice.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.
While the Government generally is secular in both name and practice, it has favored the Hindu majority of the population. The Government spent approximately $3 million (75 million rupees) in 1998 to expand a road going to the Hindu pilgrimage site for the annual Maha Shrivaratree festival. The Government couched the expense in terms of public safety, since the large portable shrines carried by the pilgrims had caused significant traffic hazards. In February 1998, the Prime Minister declared a national holiday for all Hindus who celebrated Maha Shrivaratree. There were outspoken protests by those who were not Hindu or did not have "Hindu-sounding" last names and were, therefore, not eligible for the paid holiday.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.
In August six Congolese refugees were stopped by immigration authorities and detained. The six requested political asylum, which the Government refused to grant. The Government does not grant political asylum to refugees in general on the grounds that the country is small, has limited resources, and does not wish to become a haven for large numbers of refugees. The Government allowed the six Congolese refugees to remain in the country while their attorney sought asylum for them in another country; all had been granted political asylum in another country by year's end. In November the Government allowed a Seychelles citizen and his family seeking refugee status in another country to remain in the country. The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees had not made a determination regarding their status as refugees by year's end.
There were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.
Section 3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice. Free and fair national elections based on universal suffrage were held in 1995, and a free by-election was held in September. The September by-election was held without violence and was won by the Government's candidate. The opposition judicially contested the result, alleging that the Government abused the state apparatus to favor its candidate and "corrupted" voters. In December 1998, the National Assembly passed legislation granting voting rights in the general elections to the 300 residents of the island of Agalega. Previously, they had not been represented in the National Assembly. This leaves only the residents of the island of Saint Brandon without suffrage. There only are about 100 fishermen on 6- to 12-month contracts living on Saint Brandon.
Women are underrepresented in government and politics. Of the 66 National Assembly seats, 5 are held by women.
In the National Assembly, up to eight members are appointed through a "best loser" system to ensure that all ethnic groups are represented. There are four such members.
Section 4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A number of human rights groups are organized and actively investigate and publish their findings on human rights cases. They operate without government restriction. Government officials cooperated with and responded to the views of human rights groups.
The constitutionally mandated ombudsman investigates complaints of human rights abuses. A national human rights commission, provided for by a 1998 law, had not been established by year's end. (see Section 1.c.).
Section 5. Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, caste, place of origin, political opinion, color, religion, or sex. The Government generally respected these provisions. The Government continued to prepare a curriculum for human rights education to be introduced into social studies courses at the primary and secondary levels; however, it did not meet the original goal of introducing such a curriculum in the primary grades during the year.
Violence against women, particularly spousal abuse, is a problem according to the Ministry of Women's Rights and Family Welfare, attorneys, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). The Protection from Domestic Violence Act, partially enacted in 1997, came into full force in March 1998 with the criminalization of domestic violence, and the updated law provides the judicial system with greater powers to combat this problem. Between January and June, 310 protection orders against abusive partners were issued, and a total of 843 protection orders have been issued since 1997. According to officials, the number of reported spousal abuse cases has risen in the last 4 years, primarily due to a greater awareness of women's rights and the Government's readiness to enforce them. Nevertheless, many victims still choose not to prosecute their attacker, primarily due to cultural pressures. A UNICEF-funded study reported that there were 1,013 cases of domestic violence between November 15, 1997 and May 15, 1998. Women were the victims in 974 of these cases with alcohol being a contributing factor in 56 percent of the cases.
Since women often depend on their spouses for financial security, many remain in abusive situations for fear of being unable to provide for their children as single parents. While a magistrate can order a spouse to pay child support, some spouses have stopped working in order to avoid payment. However, in July 1998, several amendments to the Criminal Code were enacted that made it a crime to abandon one's family or a pregnant spouse for more than 2 months, not to pay court-ordered food support, or to engage in sexual harassment.
Traditionally women have played subordinate roles in society, and societal discrimination continues; however, women have access to education, employment, and government services. The Minister of Women, Family Welfare, and Child Development stated in August that 25.8 percent of managers are women.
The Government placed strong emphasis on the health and welfare of children and displayed a commitment to expand educational opportunities for children. Education is mandatory until the age of 12, and the Government has set a goal to increase this to age 15 once 60 new schools are authorized and built. In July 1998, the legislature passed additional provisions to the Protection of the Child Act, thereby making certain acts compromising the health, security, or morality of children a crime.
Although incidents of child abuse are reported, private voluntary organizations claim that the problem is more widespread than is acknowledged publicly. Most government programs are administered by the state-funded National Children's Council and the Child Development Unit at the Ministry of Women, Family Welfare, and Child Development, which provides counseling, investigates reports of child abuse, and takes remedial action to protect affected children. In 1998 there were 2,897 reported cases of child abuse, including physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse. Between January and May, 1,375 cases were reported, a 429 case increase over the same time period in 1998.
People with Disabilities
There is no discrimination against disabled persons in employment, education, or in the provision of other government services. The law requires organizations that employ more than 10 persons to set aside at least 3 percent of their positions for the disabled. There is no law mandating access to public buildings or facilities. The law does not require that work sites be accessible to the disabled, making it difficult for persons with disabilities to fill many jobs.
Tensions between the Hindu majority and Christian, Creole, and Muslim minorities persist and resulted in at least two violent confrontations during the year. This tension and violence has both religious and ethnic elements. In April the head of the Catholic diocese invited all other religious heads to meet to discuss solutions to the tensions, but none accepted. After a second invitation, the head of Hindu House responded favorably. The outcome of their meeting included an invitation to the President to establish an interreligious council.
Tensions among the Hindu, Creole, Muslim, European, and Chinese communities persist and resulted in at least two violent confrontations during the year. In February there were several days of rioting and interethnic confrontations after a popular Creole singer died in police custody. Protests by members of the Creole community against suspected police misconduct in the case escalated into full-scale rioting and violent confrontations between ethnic groups, resulting in four deaths and approximately $50 million (1,250 million rupees) in property damage (see Section 1.c.).
On May 23, fans rioted when a historically Creole team defeated a historically Muslim team for the national soccer championship. That night seven persons died in a fire set at a Chinese social club in Port Louis by predominantly Muslim demonstrators who rioted after the soccer game. The precise motives for the arson attack remain unclear, but observers believe that the social club was targeted because it permitted gambling, served alcoholic beverages, and allegedly permitted prostitution from its location near the city's main mosque.
As a result of the ethnic violence that occurred in February and May, several initiatives were taken to improve relations between ethnic groups. After meeting in April, the heads of the Catholic Diocese and the Hindu House recommended that the President establish an interreligious council; however, such a council had not been created by year's end. The President established a Committee for the Promotion of National Unity, which consists of 20 members from a wide cross section of the public and private sectors. The committee has sponsored a variety of activities to promote goodwill between ethnic groups. The Mauritian Council of Social Service, which serves as an umbrella group for NGO's in the country, created a conflict resolution working group to address ethnic tensions. A citizen based abroad established the Mauritius Peace Initiative to facilitate contact between domestic community leaders and international conflict resolution experts.
The Rodrigues Government Employees Association is suing the Public Service Commission and the Government for placing different service conditions on those civil servants who were born and live on Rodrigues, an island 360 miles off the country's east coast with a population of 36,000, compared with civil servants who were born on the main island of Mauritius and work on Rodrigues. The Supreme Court heard the case at the end of November, but had not issued a decision by year's end.
Section 6. Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Constitution explicitly protects the right of workers to associate in trade unions, and there is an active trade union movement. More than 335 unions represent over 125,000 workers, or about 25 percent of the work force. Many unions are small, having fewer than 1,000 members. Eight major labor federations serve as umbrella organizations for these smaller unions. With the exception of members of the "disciplined force," namely, the police and the Special Mobile Force, and persons in state services who are not public officers such as contractors, workers are free to form and join unions and to organize in all sectors including in the export processing zone (EPZ). Although only 12.5 percent of EPZ workers are unionized, these workers are covered by national labor laws. The Mauritian Labor Congress asserts that union membership is low in the EPZ in part because employers in the EPZ intimidate employees and restrict access to union organizers. Labor unions are independent of the Government, and they have pressed wage demands, established ties to domestic political parties, and addressed political issues.
Under the Industrial Relations Act (IRA), unions have the legal right to strike; however, in practice the IRA requires a 21-day cooling-off period, followed by binding arbitration, which has the effect of making most strikes illegal. The IRA states that worker participation in an unlawful strike is sufficient grounds for dismissal, but workers may seek remedy in court if they believe that their dismissals are unjustified. There were no major strikes during the year.
Under the law, unions may establish ties with international labor bodies, and some unions have done so.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law protects the right of employees to bargain collectively with their employers. Minimum wages for nonmanagerial level workers are set by the National Remuneration Board (NRB), whose chairman is appointed by the Minister of Labor; however, most unions negotiate wages higher than those set by the NRB. Almost 13 percent of the labor force works for national or local government. The IRA prohibits antiunion discrimination. There is an arbitration tribunal that handles any such complaints.
Approximately 91,559 persons work in the EPZ. While there are some EPZ-specific labor laws, such as provisions allowing EPZ employers to request up to 10 hours per week of paid overtime from their employees, workers in these firms enjoy the same basic protections as workers in other firms.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Forced or compulsory labor, including that by children, is prohibited by law, and is not practiced.
d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment
The legal minimum age for employment of children is 15 years; however, children unable to attend secondary school often seek apprenticeships in the trades. The Government has set a goal to increase mandatory education to 9 years of schooling in January 2000. Six vocational schools were opened in January 1998 to train students who fail the primary education certificate exam taken by students at the end of the sixth year of primary education.
The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcement and conducts frequent inspections. According to the Ministry of Women, Family, and Child Development, 2,000 children between the ages of 12 and 14 were employed or looking for work in 1998. Child labor in homes, on farms, and in shops is common on the relatively isolated island of Rodrigues. Forced or bonded labor involving children is prohibited by law and does not exist (see Section 6.c.).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Government administratively establishes minimum wages, which vary according to the sector of employment, and it mandates minimum wage increases each year based on inflation. The minimum wage for an unskilled worker in the EPZ is about $12.74 (320 rupees) per week, while the lowest weekly wage for a non-EPZ worker is about $15.48 (389 rupees). This sum is below the level needed to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family, but the actual market wage for most workers is much higher due to a labor shortage and collective bargaining. The standard legal workweek in the industrial sector is 45 hours. In the EPZ, an employee may work an additional 10 hours per week, although at a higher hourly wage (see Section 6.b.).
There are more than 12,200 legal foreign workers. Since they often do not speak English, French, or Creole, it is difficult for them to demand their rights, which are the same as those of citizen employees, including the right to belong to a union. However, there were cases in which foreign workers obtained local legal counsel to redress their grievances.
The Government sets health and safety standards, and Ministry of Labor officials inspect working conditions and ensure compliance with the 1988 Occupational Safety, Health, and Welfare Act. The small number of inspectors limits the Government's enforcement ability; however, through voluntary compliance, the number of occupational accidents has been cut by two-thirds since the Act's passage. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardy to continued employment.
f. Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits trafficking in children, but does not specifically mention trafficking in adults. There were reports from the nearby island of Madagascar that women and children were trafficked to the islands of Reunion and Mauritius for prostitution.